Playtesting: Three Questions
So you want to make a game? (That question doesn't count toward my limit). Playtest early, playtest often, and make meaningful changes to your game. Most importantly, don't be defensive when people say things you don't want to hear — those people are actively trying to make your game better, so just nod and take notes. Also, don't be discouraged if you receive a lot of critical feedback; playtesters are not always right about issues in your game, and they often disagree. A few extra data points never hurt anyone, they just give you more information to hone your game.
Some extra Data.
1. What is a playtest?
Playtesting is anytime you play your game to learn or measure something about it, either qualitatively or quantitatively.
Qualitative analysis is what you can write about the playthrough of the game in words: how a player felt after a particular play, "this card is awesome!" exclamations, how you perceive interactions during a game, whether someone going easy on their spouse breaks the game, etc.
Quantitative analysis is what can be measured with numbers: player score, timings of turns, frequency of actions.
Both quantitative and qualitative analysis are important, and both are usually needed for context of a playtest. For example, if a game is very low-scoring (quantitative analysis), you can learn more about the gameplay by noting player strategies such as taking from/blocking other players (qualitative analysis). Or perhaps a player made a particularly impressive comeback — noting the deficit they faced, the number of turns it took, and the strategy employed will enable gameplay analysis with richer context.
2. How do I prepare for a playtest?
Make sure you are ready to go before the playtest. Otherwise you will miss out on information or appear frantic to your playtesters. No one wants to wait for you to figure out your new stopwatch app — they want to play!
Get your favorite note-taking device (I usually use a notebook), a timer, and optionally, an audio/video recording device.
Set up your notebook, note-taking app, typewriter, or stone tablet to track scores as you you calculate them in your game to make it easy on yourself throughout the playtest.
Keep calculating, you note-taking whiz.
If you have preset questions to ask at specific points of the game, make sure you have easy access to them.
Timing is important (and quite variable). I recommend timing from when you explain the rules. It's useful to know how long it takes for a fresh batch of players to learn and play the game, and it's useful to know how long it takes experienced players to play. For my in-development game, Element of Surprise, I time the individual rounds and note if there is a particular event which causes a round to go longer.
Five rounds of Element of Surprise.
3. What can a playtest do for my game?
Playtests can have a variety of motivations. Here are a few kinds of playtests.
In early iterations of the game, you may be running things solo. Playing all four players of a game isn't particularly strategically satisfying, but it is an excellent way to work out some kinks that become painfully obvious the moment you work your way into a real game. My wife is gracious enough to play multiple people in playtests with me, which alleviates the boredom of some solo playtests.
If you see a big issue with the game and have a few options for a fix, stick with one and try it out. This will help you decide to include an element or move on to another option. For example, if you feel like your game has too much randomness, you could:
Offer players a set of actions that are always available to them, and play with just those options.
Give players more chances to utilize randomized mechanics, decreasing the likelihood that any one random encounter affects the outcome in an outsized way. E.g. "roll three dice and keep two" instead of "roll one die".
Both seem like viable options, but it is not always wise to try multiple large changes to gameplay at the same time; doing so would likely obfuscate the outcome of the playtest.
Sometimes, los dos is not the best option.
If always-available actions (option one) and additional random encounters (option two) were added at the same time, the resulting game has more edge-case scenarios for the designer (psst, that's you!) to work out. Instead, try option one on its own. If players don't enjoy the game without the randomness, it may be indicative of more fundamental issues with how the game is played or the goals of the game. If players enjoy the non-random options, you add randomized options back in and playtest again.
A whole game is not necessarily needed to learn or measure something. If you take detailed notes, you can try to solve an issue from a previous game by recreating the conditions that led to it. Starting in the middle or end of a game is a more time-effective way to work through issues that crop up, and can explore unlikely edge-case conditions e.g. one player monopolizing a critical point on the board, a team using the same card over and over again, etc.
When it is incredibly obvious what needs to happen ("this card is impossible to play", "I ran out of money", etc.), sometimes you should update on the fly. Break out your sticky notes, erasers, and white-out, and fix the problem! Many times, you can correct something the first time it happens. I don't recommend being inconsistent within a playtest though — if you ruled one way the first time an event occurred, make sure to stick with it, otherwise you won't get a complete picture of how your change affects the game.
I hope you enjoyed a glimpse into playtesting. Next week I will talk about how some of the above points have shaped playtesting in my game, Element of Surprise.
Fun Games of the Week: Brass: Birmingham, watching a baby pug dance around an adult pug near a coffee shop on my walking route.